At times, it can get pretty warm in Florida, so my family looks for ways to keep our cool. Fortunately, there’s a place near Kissimmee where cute and cold intersect—Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin at SeaWorld® Orlando. There’s no better way to celebrate these lovable tuxedoed birds than to visit them at SeaWorld on World Penguin Day (April 25). Forget the expensive cruise down to the South Pole, because this expedition starts with our two kids, Tyler and Ava, piling out of the minivan in the parking lot.
“Where are we going first, Dad?” Tyler excitedly asked as we approached the turnstiles.
“We’re going south, Tyler,” I replied. “Really far south.”
Jagged rock outcroppings and icy formations jut out from the ground surrounding the entrance to the land of Antarctica at SeaWorld, where our encounter with penguins began. Just looking at these towering slabs of ice made us feel cooler as we ventured closer to the attraction entrance, which started with a ride. Once inside, a group of us watched a short video in an icy cavern that introduced us to Puck, a newborn penguin. Soon, the doors ahead opened and we were led to a vehicle, where we could pick either a “wild” or “mild” ride experience. I turned to the kids. Having adventurous children, I already knew the answer.
“Wild!” Tyler and Ava both exclaimed at once.
The ride had us spinning and gliding along the “ice” as we followed Puck’s adventures through colorful caverns. As we slid along, we bumped into each other several times as the vehicle jostled us, making us laugh every time. There’s a beauty to the ride, from the ambient music and the dancing colors along the cavern walls to the ballet of the vehicles gliding along. It was the perfect preparation for our next stop.
We soon found ourselves face-to-face with dozens of penguins. The massive habitat was chock-full of birds curiously looking back at us. I expected to walk through a hallway and see the birds from behind glass, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The cold of this 32-degree habitat immediately hit our bones as the birds and us mammals shared the same area, separated only by snow banks. The kids clung to each side of me for warmth as we watched these majestic creatures.
“It’s really cold in here,” Ava said.
“That’s because it’s Antarctica, sweetie,” I replied.
The penguins darted through a pool with ease and hopped from rock to rock as if trying to find that perfect spot—all just a few feet away from us. They were such curious creatures; some playing, others seemingly watching us while others were content to stand around and enjoy the cool air. The staff, bundled up in heavy parkas, was stationed all around—ready to answer all of our penguin-related questions. They helped point out what species of penguins we were looking at in the shared habitat. There were several viewing spots, but our favorite was the one where we could watch the penguins swim. We had no idea they could dart around so quickly.
“Dad, look at that one. Wait, look at that one, Dad,” Tyler and Ava shouted, playing tug-o-war with my attention.
My fascination for these creatures grew each time one zipped by.
The kids had such a great time experiencing the penguins that we decided to check out the Penguins Up-Close Tour, a 45-minute walking tour with SeaWorld’s knowledgeable animal experts. Our guide took time to answer our questions, while pointing out features and details of the penguin habitat, showing us buckets filled with the fish the penguins eat. He had some amazing stories to share, like how SeaWorld created a special wetsuit for one of their Adélie penguins that was not molting properly. The wetsuit helped her grow back her feathers. We were glad to hear that she was feeling better.
Near the end of the tour, we went backstage, behind the habitat where several penguins hung out of view from the public, to interact with one of the cute creatures. Some even waddled up and studied us with curious faces. The guides even had one of the penguins come to our side of the fence so it could walk around us. The kids watched in awe as the little bird calmly looked up at them. Each was as curious as the other.
“Dad, this is so cool!” Tyler exclaimed.
And it was cool. You don’t realize how much personality these little guys have until they’re casually walking by your feet. It was truly an unforgettable experience. Conservation is a big part of what SeaWorld does. While they’re well-known for the animal rescues they conduct around the state of Florida, I didn’t realize how much of their efforts were directed to issues worldwide. Our guide explained that through the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, SeaWorld had helped provide funding for everything from a census of several penguin species on the Falkland Islands to helping hand-raise hundreds of abandoned African penguin chicks. It certainly opened my eyes to what SeaWorld does—not just at their parks, but also globally for animal conservation.
Just across from Empire of the Penguin, we stopped for lunch at Expedition Café.
“Daddy, we’ve got to go in there,” Ava said. I think Ava picked it because the entrance was a massive expedition trailer on stilts surrounded by ice. She was right—it was pretty cool looking (no pun intended). Inside, the restaurant offered cuisine from all over the world, which I later learned was inspired by three of the countries that were part of the original Antarctic Treaty. I decided on a tasty South Pole Pepper Steak while Ava and Tyler went for the Garden Lasagna. The seating area outside was laid out as if it were a research outpost in Antarctica, complete with weathered Quonset huts. We finished lunch by splitting a cupcake that had a little candy penguin standing atop the blue frosting.
“This cupcake is really good,” Tyler managed to get out between big bites of the sweet treat. I didn’t know one kid could attract so much blue frosting to his face.
We earned that cupcake because you burn a lot of calories while on an expedition. Besides, it’s Antarctica; you need the calories to stay warm, right?
Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin is more than an attraction; it’s a thoughtfully and carefully crafted world that made us feel like we were at the South Pole with these amazing creatures. We went to the park thinking that we’d have a little family fun, but we left with a newfound respect for the world we live in and the animals we share it with.